IT’S always easy to look back at cultural figures from earlier eras and denounce them as “elitists,” and that’s clearly what’s happened to the great British art critic and interpreter Kenneth Clark. Through books on landscape and the nude, and his BBC television documentary series from 1969, Civilisation, Clark exposed an enormous number of people to art and ideas, clearly and intelligently. (I was too young to really experience his heyday, but one of Clark’s American inheritors, Carl Sagan, was a childhood hero of mine. And the Civilisation book is wonderful.)
A new article in the Guardian takes stock of the man’s accomplishments and reputation, judging him to have gone into eclipse in part because of assaults by the Marxist critic John Berger.
Berger’s brilliant TV series and book Ways of Seeing (1972) threw down a lethal Marxist-feminist gauntlet to Clark’s Olympian worldview. Clark is the only art historian to be named, and he is cited and ticked-off twice over. His description of Gainsborough’s portrait of Mr and Mrs Andrews on their country estate in Landscape into Art (1949) as “enchanting” and “Rousseauist” is denounced: “They are not a couple in Nature as Rousseau imagined nature. They are landowners and their proprietary attitude towards what surrounds them is visible in their stance and their expressions.” Berger well knew that Clark, thanks to substantial inherited wealth (the family fortune came from Paisley cotton), had lived since 1955 in Saltwood Castle in Kent surrounded by a moat and a large art collection that included old masters and impressionists.
My politics are probably closer to Berger’s than to Clark’s. But when writers who address a broad non-academic audience like Clark (or Jacob Bronowski, or Sagan) are shoved aside for ideological reasons, because they are deemed middlebrow, or whatever — culture becomes a minority interest. We move closer to all Miley all of the time.
“Above all, perhaps, Clark was a brilliant wordsmith, the most seductive writer on art since Ruskin and Pater, whom he greatly admired,” James Hall writes near the end of his piece. “Today, when most art historians write as joylessly as lawyers and accountants, such verve is sorely needed.”